By Any Other Name, Cowpeas Still Taste Sweet
Cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata) go by many names, including black-eyed peas, pinkeye/ purple hulled peas, crowder peas and southern peas. In various countries in Africa, where the plant was originally domesticated, common names include: niébé, seub, niao, wake, and luba hilu. On the Indian subcontinent they are called lobia, in Brazil, caupi. In Southeast Asia, a variety of cowpeas called long beans or asparagus beans has been grown for over 1,000 years.
Caption: (above) Asian Long Beans growing under research conditions at UC Riverside. (left) California Blackeye 77 growing in Fresno.
It happens to a lot of gardeners. Come August, after days on end of extreme heat in local edible gardens, our tomatoes, eggplant, and squash start to shrivel up. May gardens around LA County become blistering, unwelcoming spaces where pests and diseases can move in. We find excuses to avoid going out to water our gardens. All the while, our garden soil – remains largely uncovered as it cracks and dries, loosing precious moisture and nutrients.
Looking for a good antidote to the dog days of summer? Grow cowpeas, a drought and heat tolerant crop you can plant during summer’s hottest months. Known as “the world’s toughest bean” cowpeas are good for the soil and tasty and nutritious for people. The leaves and the tender pods edible, as are freshly-shelled or dried beans. Some varieties grow as a vine, others grow short and bushy; still others grow horizontally, spreading out across the ground, making them well suited as a cover crop.
An ancient foundational bean, cowpeas have deep cultural roots to Africa where they have been growing for more than 10,000 years along with other crops like pearl millet and sorghum. Today, cowpeas have a global reach, with rich and diverse culinary traditions in Asia, Australia, Latin America, many parts of southern Europe and the southern United States. Click on our website for more info.
During the long, hot days of summer, gardeners and farmers struggle to keep their crops alive. Cowpeas, aka blackeye peas, are good for the soil and good for people to eat. The best time to plant them is May-July, so why not get started?
Note: Cowpeas like full sun. Once established, they survive well under drought and heat conditions. They tolerate some shade but are subject to root rot when grown in too much shade or given too much water. Cowpeas can be grown both as a crop to eat and as a cover crop. While not necessary, cowpea inoculant helps add more nitrogen in the soil and increase the yield of crops that follow. A little goes a long way. The product expires quickly. There's likely. much more than you'll need in a bag, so consider sharing with other gardeners.
How cowpeas help grow healthy soil and conserve water:
Cowpeas were domesticated independently in both east and west Africa over 5,000 years ago. They were spread by the Bantu people of southern West Africa, people skilled at developing high yield crops. By 2500 B.C., cowpeas travelled east and then north along trade routes, arriving in the Mediterranean region by ancient Roman times.
Cowpeas came to the Americas along two separate routes. Spanish conquerors carried them to Mexico and California in the 1500’s. They arrived in the southern U.S. in the 1600’s, directly from West Africa on slave ships. Cowpeas continue to have deep cultural significance in the South, grown in home and market gardens from Texas to Virginia.
George Washington Carver (c.1860 – 1943) was prominent American scientist, inventor, educator, and champion of Black farmers. Carver, whose parents were born enslaved, encouraged farmers to be self-sufficient, to look to the land for what they needed rather than going into debt to buy fertilizer, a practice advocated by ‘scientific agriculture.’ Instead, he taught farmers to use compost compost and grow cowpeas to restore the South’s soil that had been depleted by cotton. Read more on Carver here.
Today, cowpeas are a staple crop in many parts of the world including Latin America and Southeast Asia. They are the major source of protein in sub-Saharan Africa, widely grown by subsistence farmers, mostly women, who plant them as they have for hundreds of years, intercropped with maize, millet, and sorghum. These and other subsistence farmers around the world face mounting challenges from climate change, war, and economic inequality - challenges that threaten both the yield and the nutritional value of their crops.
'California Blackeye 46'
Cowpeas come in thousands of varieties. Some grow as short, upright bushes. Others grow on a trellis or on the ground to cover the soil. The cowpea packets you received from Planet Earth Observatory are called ‘California Blackeye 46’. They are the beans you will. most likely to find on the shelves of grocery stores across the nation (although they are probably. not among the cherished varieties passed on by home gardeners in the South.) California Blackeye 46 grows as an upright bush about 2’ tall with a canopy of about 60”. They were developed at UC Davis to resist fusarium wilt and are also somewhat resistant to root knot nematodes.
Cowpeas origins, worldwide spread: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/leg3.57
Production Systems and Prospects of Cowpea in the United States
Blackeye Bean Production in California https://beans.ucanr.edu/files/226601.pdf
National Archives - Presentation
George Washington Carver
Food and Agricultural Organisation (UN-FAO)
Cowpeas in developing countries
Bantulingual.com : Bantu Migrations
The Journal of Agronomy defines ethnic crops as "non-mainstream crops introduced to the United States from Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Caribbean." With the changing ethnic background in the United States, minority populations are projected to increase from 20.4% in 1980 to 50.1% by 2042. This demographic, the journal's editors state, " brings with it a rapidly changing food culture, increasing quite rapidly the diversity of ethnic crops that needs to be characterised as an evolving powerhouse of the US agricultural economy." Following up, the journal published a 2021 article claiming: "Cowpea constitutes a large portion of the daily diet among many people in Africa, Asia, Central America, and Southern America...With the projected increase in the minority population in the United States... it is expected that the consumption of cowpea in the nation will increase substantially."